The smart money is on phonics

16th December 2005 at 00:00
Proper funding to help dyslexic pupils with literacy in mainstream school would save a fortune later, writes Shirley Cramer.

The interim report by Jim Rose, Ofsted's former director of inspections, puts the teaching of reading firmly back in the headlines. Its emphasis on the importance of using synthetic phonics in teaching children to read is long overdue.

For children suffering from dyslexia, the value of this approach as part of a carefully designed, multi-sensory teaching programme has long been recognised. But a key issue yet to be resolved by the Rose review, which is still to address the problem of readers with special needs, is what happens next to the child who continues to struggle under the synthetic phonics approach.

The recent TES poll on inclusion ("Thousands 'better off' in special schools", October 14) showed that 90 per cent of class teachers and 89 per cent of headteachers thought that children with specific learning difficulties, such as dyslexia, dyspraxia and dyscalculia, should be taught in mixed classes in mainstream schools.

A follow-up question to this might have been to ask what the ideal system of inclusive support would look like. Only 12 per cent of that same group of heads felt that the resources and support their schools received were sufficient.

Clearly, teachers believe it is right to support children with "high-incidence disabilities" in the classroom but feel they cannot offer the right kind of help. Mr Rose's recommendation, with government support, offers a chance to make the commitment to teaching children with special needs in mainstream schools much more than a pipe dream.

Teaching pupils to read using synthetic phonics will make it easier to identify dyslexia tendencies in children. And in cases where an individually-tailored teaching programme for the dyslexic child - who often needs teaching that addresses issues wider than just slow reading, such as poor short-term memory - is made available, then there is every likelihood they will catch up swiftly.

At present, it is difficult for the Government to reach its ambitious literacy and numeracy targets and aims for personalised learning - as outlined in the recent white paper - when there is no comprehensive strategy to support children with specific learning difficulties.

The TES poll is just the most recent in a long line of evidence that suggests we need to bite the bullet on special educational needs policy and develop national standards for service provision, backed by appropriate training programmes.

Various studies in recent years have shown that children with specific learning difficulties are falling between the cracks. They are failing to get appropriate support from the national primary strategy's third wave, but are not yet deemed bad enough to qualify for extra help under special educational needs policy.

How are we to answer when a parent asks: "How far behind does my child need to be to get support?" Often this depends on a postcode lottery. It would be comforting for parents if all services for dyslexic children were as good as the best.

In its July report, Inclusion: the impact of LEA support and outreach services, Ofsted indicated that delegating funding to individual schools had, in many cases, had a detrimental effect on the quantity and quality of help for children with specific learning difficulties. Consequently, many children are failing who should be thriving in the mainstream.

In 2003, a Hertfordshire primary school introduced a whole-school approach to dyslexia, which included awareness training for all staff and parents, training and mentoring for teachers and teaching assistants, and the support of a specialist dyslexia teacher for children with the most severe problems.

At the start of the initiative, 60 per cent of the children achieved level 4 in English. By 2005, 95 per cent had reached level 4, with similar improvements in maths and science. Classroom behaviour and self-esteem had improved too.

So what are the costs of providing comprehensive support for children with specific learning difficulties including dyslexia in our 17,642 primary schools in England? The latest Department for Education and Skills's school census (January 2005) identifies more than 4 million students in primary education, with 400,000 at some risk of failure. Providing awareness courses about specific learning difficulties for schools would cost aboutpound;5 million.

An essential foundation for all children is having an evidence-based programme such as synthetic phonics to teach reading. For dyslexic learners this is critical. The final Rose report, due in the new year, will take account of all struggling readers.

But even with the best reading programmes, there will still be children who need more help, and each school requires at least one staff member with a qualification at level 3 in dyslexia and literacy.

To train someone in each primary school would cost around Pounds 10million.

If a child still fails to progress, he or she will need more intensive support from a specialist teacher with a postgraduate diploma in dyslexia and literacy. Providing a specialist teacher who could support a cluster of five primary schools would cost around pound;12m, and would ensure that implementation of whole-school programmes were successful, including assessment, mentoring and apprentice-style training.

Some will consider this exorbitant, but it is paltry given the enormous costs of unrecognised dyslexia in our prisons (pound;186m), the probation service (pound;76m), and those excluded from school (pound;50m).


Shirley Cramer is chief executive officer of the Dyslexia Institute


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